There were usually five trees: kitchen, family room, dining room, landing and living room. We were allowed to help decorate the tree on the upstairs landing, which was covered in small wooden toys, and the kitchen tree, full of cookery staples and, when time allowed, popcorn strings. The rest fell to my mother, a woman driven by aesthetics with a love of very well appointed holiday homes. There were no colored lights, anywhere, and ornaments were well scrutinized before they landed on a tree. The living room tree was off limits. The large faux pine was brought upstairs each year, lights still strung from the previous Christmas. She took them all off and started again, from the bottom. With each revolution she stepped back, squinted madly and assessed the light to space ration. Lights were wrapped from bottom to top and front to back on the individual branches, a very serious task no 10 year old could master. One year Mitch, our handy about the house helper man, found that she had taken the lights down and so, in trying to help, put them back up. She took them down immediately. The whole process took weeks and in the end we had a very lovely home, fully outfitted for the Christmas holiday. And that is one of the oddities of growing up, you find that not everyone watched from another room while their mother decorated the tree, some children actually helped.
Like my mother I put the lights on the tree, a task I truly dislike. On my knees I work to circle the beautiful tree with small white lights, weaving in and out and then, when I find myself at the wall, I toss the mangled mess of green to a jumping child on the other side who gleefully catches it, and the process begins again. Around and around we go; occasionally I squint, but for no purpose other than to see just how completely out of line the lights have been strung. Historically there are five times more lights on the bottom half of the tree than the top, I tackle the lower branches with gusto, and wear out once I require a step stool. This year, just as I began to stretch high, I ran out of lights, leaving the top in the dark until Jack dug out a spare strand, and so, unlike most years, the top is aglow with lights from every branch.
Several years ago my mother, who does not often part with things in her home, opened all the ornament boxes and let my sister and me take whatever we wanted. Having two daughters she had diligently bought two of almost everything. That afternoon digging through the past was one of the most enjoyable I had ever had with my mother and sister at Christmas. Jack sat on the opposite sofa, horrified at the amount of things I packed to take home to Chicago. He finds a very similar look each year when the tubs appear from the basement.
The huge ornament box is opened and Mary and Kate set to work. There are ornaments from both of my grandmothers and my mother; there are several things I made as a child including a star, cut from wrapping paper, glued on cardboard and trimmed in red yarn, with"Merry Christmas Mimi and Bopaw" scratched on the back in red crayon. There is a red ball with our names and table 20 written on the side, a truly clever table card from a very fun New Year's wedding. There are ornaments received as gifts from former co-workers, party favors, and those with the very familiar mark of Uncle Kenny. There are small brass bells, handed out to guests at our wedding to ring us out of the church almost ten years ago. Every single thing we hang on the tree reminds me of someone, someplace, or something. Decorating the tree is an afternoon spent listening to me blather on about the tiny teeth marks on the small radio flyer wagon, origin not completely known.
The tree serves as a growth chart; wee copies of The Night Before Christmas, brass French horns, and felt covered Santas now reach almost to mid tree, with my help only required to fill in the sparsely decorated top. Branches sag prematurely from the weight of three ornaments on one limb, large heavy snowmen are moved to the bottom so as not to topple the entire thing on a quietly sleeping beagle and Mary and Kate delight in covering their beautiful tree with everything they can find, including, this year, randomly strewn feathers from some craft box recovered from underneath a bed. There are no ornaments anywhere the back of the tree, but finding a free spot on the front is impossible.
This year, two days after the decorating was completed, the lights in the middle of the tree went out. Jack bought a super duper light blaster gun at Target. He tried valiantly to resuscitate the weary strand but it was no use, our mid section was in the dark, leaving us with a reverse Oreo looking holiday arbor. It's a beautiful tree, decorated with care by six year old Christmas enthusiasts, covered with ornaments from those who love them.